Sunday, November 3, 2013

Book Review: Fatal Journey--The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson

I've always had a thing for the northern explorers.

Whether its because of my more Anglo Saxon roots or my New England birthplace and frequent visits to Canada, I've always been more interested in those European explorers who ventured into the colder climes of North America than the more southernly focused efforts.

Henry Hudson completed a number of journeys to North America as well as Northern Russia, Greenland, Iceland, etc.  His name remains marked on New York's largest river and one of the largest bays in the world.  While Fatal Journey: The Final Expedition of Henry Hudson by Peter Mancall focuses on his final voyage to the "New World" it contains sufficient history surrounding his other journeys as well as those of similar explorers--Frobisher, Champlain, etc. that it serves as a good base of knowledge of all early European, Nordic explorers.

The book also serves as a good education on the reasoning behind the efforts of these explorers and their political and economic backers.  While I had always known that the search for the Northwest Passage (and European exploration of the New World in general) was driven by a search for a quicker way to the products available in the South Pacific, I guess I hadn't really known or thought about the fact that these products were "just" spices.  All that effort, lives, money, industry were spent in an effort to bring back food flavorings.  Well, not just food flavorings but "medicine" as well.  Beyond the culinary applications of the various South Seas spices, most of these products were also viewed as "cure alls" for whatever ailed you in the 14th+ century.  Yup...pepper, curry, etc. were used to "cure" the plague, indigestion, headaches, flatulence, etc.  If you were ill, there was a spice that cured your sickness.  So in truth, the discovery and exploration of the Western hemisphere by Europeans was driven by a bunch of quacks.

While there might be a bit of humor to be found in some of the reasons behind our continents unmasking, the efforts to do so were decidedly without humor and often life threatening.  Most oceangoing trips would return with a few less sailors on board than what they started with (sometimes a the hands of the decidedly NOT always peaceful indigenous population), yet finding a ship full of those willing to venture into the unknown doesn't seem to have been a problem.

Hudson's final arctic exploration would end in disaster.  Hudson's crew revolted, put him and his teenage son (and others) in a skiff and left them for dead.  Hudson never found the Northwest passage he was looking for.  Neither his body nor his fate were ever truly revealed.  Those who returned to England blamed other members of the crew who "happened" to have died on the trip back and no one was ever held accountable.  Hudson was a failure.  As were other explorations--Jacques Cartier's third voyage bringing back a ship full of quartz and Fool's Gold (instead of the diamonds and gold he thought it was) comes to mind.  If it weren't for these brave failures however, the human race would still be plucking fleas out of its unshaven mane.

This work is a solid and interesting work covering a whole range of efforts in the search for the Northwest (and Northeast) passage.  Anyone interested in either Hudson or early North America exploration should value this effort.

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